There are a lot of amazing things about last night’s big story: the primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by an unknown economics professor from Randolph-Macon College who bashed Cantor as an establishment Republican who was too soft on key conservative issues such as immigration. My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru has ably covered the politics side, so here’s another amazing fact, from the money side (via OpenSecrets.org):
This is possibly the most resounding argument ever made against the notion that wealthy people can simply buy themselves representation in Congress. David Brat was outspent 40 to 1 and still managed a devastating primary upset.
This is not quite as surprising as you might think; the literature on campaign spending tends to show that there’s probably some effect, but it's not nearly as clear or as large as most people think. And it seems entirely possible that in primaries -- where the electorate is whittled down to a much smaller group of highly motivated voters -- money might have even less influence than it does on the general election.
Still, if you’re someone who worries a lot about the Citizens United decision making it impossible for the little guy to get a voice in politics, this should put you a little more at ease. Though not too at ease, given Brat’s politics.
Brat’s politics are actually emblematic of what I imagine even more outsider-amenable, money-prone politics would look like. There has been a lot of ink spilled lamenting research by Martin Gilens showing that politicians seem to be more responsive to the concerns of the elite than to the concerns of middle- and low-income voters. When this is soberly discussed at think-tank panels, you tend to hear a lot about the minimum wage and unemployment benefits. You tend to hear less about gay rights, abortion and free speech, issues where our politics is also much more responsive to elites than the poor. Liberal positions on immigration, foreign aid and free trade also find more support among the rich than the poor.
If it is true that money can at least help buy elections, and if this is a factor in the fact that American politics leans toward the concerns of the wealthy, then getting the money out of politics would produce a Congress more inclined to raise the minimum wage, as well as create more generous unemployment benefits and richer national health-care benefits -- but also one that is more nativist and socially conservative. If Brat did indeed win because he went after Cantor on immigration, this exemplifies what those candidates would look like.
My personal policy preferences are not, of course, a reason to prioritize the concerns of the elite; like Martin Gilens, I’m deeply disturbed by the idea that the political system listens harder to the affluent than to the ordinary majority. But Brat’s win is a good illustration of two principles that we should keep in mind when we think about the role of money in politics: Money doesn’t make as big a difference as you think, and if the people who want to get money out of politics succeed, the results might look very different from what they imagine.
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